Gettin' Windy in the City

The Chicago clip crew gleefully gabs on in Barbershop 2.

Barbershop 2: Back in Business
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Whoops, franchise! Way back in 2002, who would have believed that a comedy starring rapper Ice Cube (né O'Shea Jackson) would be a hit, let alone spawn a sequel? Just having a giggle, obviously, but so are the producers of Barbershop 2: Back in Business, which handily snaps up its predecessor's charming characters and homey setting, dispenses with some of the more cartoonish antics (as well as Anthony Anderson), and emerges victorious as a sequel that's smarter and more fun than the original. Well, that's if you consider Barbershop wholly original, but we'll get to that.

We return to Chicago's South Side, to the rowdy social locus that is Calvin's Barber Shop, but this time Calvin (Cube) faces a new challenge. Rather than losing and regaining faith in the beloved business his father left him, this time he has bigger fish to fry. The key word is gentrification, and it's swooping in fast via designer coffee and all that -- but most threatening is an absurdly luxurious haircutting palace going in directly across the street, just another in the chain of "Nappy Cutz" outlets providing urban communities with surface sleekness while robbing them of soul.

We open, tellingly, on a stinking-drunk white Uncle Sam stumbling down the sidewalk on the Fourth of July, 1967. Rushing past is Eddie (Cedric "The Entertainer" Kyles), on the lam from the cops until he finds safe haven in Calvin Sr.'s barbershop, where he stays to the present day. It's a nice bit of backstory that swoops directly into the outrageously slick opening credits, which beautifully celebrate the images and lives of famous African Americans (and the odd Jamaican) who have increased the peace or at least given good hair. Also have to applaud the digitally re-created evolution of the Chicago skyline, which is quick but awesome.

Anyway, the gang's all here, including roughneck Ricky (Michael Ealy), concealing a crafty new scheme and sorting out his feelings for Terri, the gradually evolving riot grrrl (Eve Jeffers). Dinka, the culturally dedicated Nigerian (Leonard Earl Howze), is still finding his adorable way, while Jimmy, the arrogant college boy (Sean Patrick Thomas), also returns to annoy everybody. Additionally, we still have to put up with Isaac (Troy Garity), the white guy from the first movie who threw down all that stupid "blacker-than-thou" crap. At least, given the urban social work of his father, Tom Hayden, actor Garity arrives with a semi-urban pedigree, but it's nonetheless a great relief that he's toned down his embarrassing shit this time.

The crux of the plot is as sweetly old-fashioned as a Capra film, with Cube as the new millennium's earnest and well-intentioned Jimmy Stewart. Basically, the dirty gangster of the first movie is replaced here by a crooked politician, and the ante for Calvin's faith is upped from 20 G's to 200. Now raising a baby with his wife (Jazsmin Lewis) and well aware of the social significance of his shop, Calvin must navigate the tricky straits of business competition, urban redevelopment, and unruly employees en route to the big public soliloquy about his wonderful neighborhood.

But that's almost beside the point -- the point being that everybody still gets to talk a bunch of smack. Offering a laid-back setting and instantly recognizable "friends," the Barbershop franchise is like Cheers for people who aren't boring. This time around, we get new characters in Kenard, the nervous neophyte-barber (Kenan Thompson of SNL), and Gina, a saucy beautician (Queen Latifah, née Dana Elaine Owens, who's already been granted her own spinoff movie, Beauty Shop, while MGM simultaneously dropped Halle Berry's James Bond spinoff; politics everywhere). The project offers nice doses of reality (an Al Sharpton joke) as well as fantasy (a top-of-the-line iBook in a barbershop, apparently with the fastest DSL hookup in all the Windy City), and it's a very enjoyable place to visit.

Dollars to Dr. Peppers, though, you're coming out mainly to see Cedric as Eddie, and he doesn't disappoint. Still sounds like Mel Blanc with a bad head cold, still looks like the Bride of Frankenstein on soul food, and delights as ever with malapropisms ("He's one of our prima-donna barbers") and even heroism and romance this time. He's a treat, even amid the unforgivable praise for Kenny G.

Barbershop 2 may appear humble and cute, but it's a top-notch package all the way. Only one of the original screenwriters (Don D. Scott) is back, but with Norman Vance Jr. and director Kevin Rodney Sullivan (How Stella Got Her Groove Back), the screenplay is -- to quote the group Fishbone -- "as tight as a mosquito's ass." Editor Paul Seydor deserves special commendation for harmonizing the zippy dialogue (which could easily have become a train wreck), and the additional music by Wu-Tang Clan, featuring the RZA (whose work also raised up the spirit of Ghost Dog), adds a hip boost. Still makes no sense that guys with no discernible hair desperately need haircuts, but on it goes.

To close with a little cynicism, one can almost hear the echoes of movie executives cloistered around this "new" hot property: "It's kind of like Spike Lee's NYU thesis film, Joe's Bed Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, but nicer and funnier! Let's omit most of the unruly politics and violence, dumb it down some, distract everyone with funny dialogue, and play nice all the way to the bank." To some degree, you're still getting robbed, Spike. Still, as your own Barbershop's Nicholas Lovejoy states, "It is very difficult for black people to enter the mainstream of the American economy." At least here, the robbery seems generally beneficial.

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